Life In The German Pension
( Originally Published 1887 )
AND our home here in the pension ! Verily, the "stern abode of the Muses."
Neither luxury nor ease allures the soul from its pure devotion to higher, unseen beauty. The ordinary German home,— to the spoiled American, — knows little of either. We learn to know that America is the land of plenty and luxurious comfort. How can these nations know our luxury of living, our abundance, our ease, — our, — well, there are countless blessings in America so unknown here that we sometimes wonder if we are not dreaming. This may be the judgment of prejudice, and the German might miss much in our homes, for it is an eternal principle of human nature to exalt home and native land.
High up in the high houses are the pensions. Here are no elevators as in our " flats " in American cities. Street after street in Berlin shows a solid front of these great stucco-finished, rococo buildings. It makes a city look very imposing, and we Americans reflect with some shame on the appearance of our cities, with the houses of all sizes, shapes, and colors, brick, wood, stone, mingled, —and then to look out of our back windows, and see all the sheds, wooden fences, black roofs, —oh, how unkempt and straggling ! And I fairly shudder to think of our streets with the mud and dust and gutters and miserable disorder. Here there is underground drainage ; a force of men is constantly at work, keeping the streets clean, and the sweeping never halts. Our cities must seem under wretched supervision and discipline to the European visitors, just as this seems clean and attractive to us. We could never sit on our balconies and eat, as they do here, .or have restaurant gardens opening upon the sidewalk; we would be choked with dust, and sick of surrounding aspects. The sanitary and police regulations here add to the pleasure and comfort of living. Some of the houses have small front yards, filled with flowers and gracefully festooned vines ; but we enter our pension directly from the street. A porter generally guards the great house door, and at your ring he turns the spring from within, the door swings open, and you enter. Before you a spacious hall with a stone floor, frequently in mosaic style, — and at the opposite end of this hall there is usually a door or a window opening upon the court, sometimes a grassy plot, a beautiful garden, or small business shops, according to the respectability of the neighborhood. On right and left, stairs ascend to the dwellings, each floor having apartments to the 'right and left. We try to get into as many houses as possible, to compare them with each other and see the general style of the city. We have had quite an experience hunting a place for a violin student. She came in great distress, turned out of her pension. She had been there over a year, the Fraulein pretended to think very much of her, and now, when a higher price is offered for the room, the American is turned out, and when she thought herself comfortably fixed for the winter's work. We spent two mornings hunting a place and enjoying the phases of German life. Such curiosity I never met. Every place we went they wanted to hear all about her desire for board, asked a hundred questions, very personal ones, too ; commented on the American girls, their independence and peculiarities ; and then finally would say the rooms were already rented. Even the servants in the corridors stopped us, and asked our business. One place there was a professor of music, —the violin a specialty, —and when he learned that Miss H. was a violinist and taking from a rival professor, he showed a most violent rage, and we left in a hurry. At another place, a Frau Major's, they were just taking coffee, and a number of young officers were seated about the table, and they all arose and stood as we passed through the room. That would be an interesting place for a pension. We had little success, for if the hall were dark or forbidding, if the names on the doors at each landing -included too many officers, if the court foretold noise, if, as a whole, it was not a vornehm entrance, we retreated. Many Americans live "student fashion," that is, rent a room (which also includes, fire, light, service, morning coffee) and go out for meals. It is a cheap way of living, and music students find it more independent for practising. It is more independent, too, if you prefer to go your own way, without being obliged to explain each step, which is the usual case in pensions.
Our pension has a pleasant entrance ; the halls frescoed, pretty stained glass windows, looking upon the grassy court, statues in niches as you ascend, and a settee at each landing, as a rest in ascending the heights. Nearly all the rooms are alike, and each a work-room. There is the piano or violin and stacks of music ; there is the easel, palette, brushes, models ; there is the pile of books — all threatening, demanding. A work-shop, stern, uninviting at first, apparently lonely, cheerless, desolate. After all, the quaint little spot becomes a loved little corner in old Europe, the sacred shrine of the secret life and heart-history of peculiar hours of toil and hope.
Here is the student room. Up four stories, to the right, there where the white door plate denotes " Pensionat Matzky, ring the bell." Within the little hall to the left, " Herein" answers your knock, and you press down the handle of the door. The light steals through lace curtains indispensable in every German home at the casement window, where hangs a transparency of the Sistine Madonna, our student's first "pick-up " in Europe. But the room ! The floor, stained, varnished, polished, verily as a sea of glass, in the centre of which floats a diminutive green island of Brussels carpet. Forget the sense of warmth and "home " identified in your mind with our universal use of carpets, and remember that this is economical and healthy, two great things we may learn from the Germans. Our greatest point of objection to rugs is the weekly beating given to them. Friday morning in all the courts begins this terrible pounding, and and as this is the morning after the regular Thursday evening American reception, the morning nap is especially wooing, but what pleasure does it yield, broken by this irritating, aggravating pound, pound ? At first the bare floors seem cold. We feel awkward, too, as we hear our own footfalls, and then it destroys ease and grace to be obliged to watch every step lest we slip on the highly waxed surface. The furniture is every-where plain and simple ; even in the royal families there is none of the elaborate elegance found in our homes. In our students' room we see that common in general life. There is a little ward-robe containing queer swinging pegs that refuse to retain any articles placed thereon. Frequently, instead of the wardrobe there is a clothes-tree, such as we had in Hamburg, — an upright pole with wooden pegs, likewise obstinate. A little stand of drawers does the service of a bureau ; a green-covered table with four stiff chairs placed stiffly about it ; a slim stand with a decanter of water, a glass, a candle ; a large, straight-backed sofa; but the distinctive feature there in the corner rises a towering, chilly, white cenotaph. It is not a relic of Greek sculpture, not a mausoleum, nor from the churchyard near, but really the German stove ! However ornamental these enormous things are made, and they are built in the house, often highly decorated, still they spoil the beauty of a room. They say this is a whole-some mode of heating; at least it diffuses an even heat, and is easily managed ; the fire is made, shortly after the brass door is shut, and that is the end for the day. Square blocks of pressed coal are used for fuel: one hundred pieces for seventy-five pfennige (eighteen cents), and as only ten a day are used, heating is cheap.
" Is this the bedroom, too?" you ask. True, it seems to be only a study, but it is bedroom, also. At night, the little stand develops into a toilet-table, the sofa into a bed. German beds are peculiarly unique. They are all single bed-steads, narrow and short. The Germans do not need long beds, as the people sleep so high,—rather seem to sit or recline in bed than lie. On top is a puffy, soft feather-bed, covered with a quilt, all wadded and stitched, over the edge of which the sheet is turned and fastened with huge buttons. Quite a fine sight is this bed, marvellous to behold, but more marvellous to lie in. Under the pillow is a wedge shaped wood incline, which the American vainly endeavors to banish. Nightly I cast it away, it always reappears. It may be necessary to say that you get in between the feather-beds, and you would agree that this is most comfortable if only the upper one were long enough ; as it is, it requires practice and skill to balance it on your prostrate form. Family pictures ornament the walls, a gilt edged looking glass that is all. Has it the home-feeling that our modern, practical, com, fortable furniture gives ? and then, oh, for a rocking-chair !
Bare as it may seem, the American girl soon gives it the touch of home. Cards come from across the waters — what better way to remember the givers than by having them in constant sight on the walls ? The fringed books and bright pictures give a friendly tone. Ivy, ferns, leaves from the graves of noted men, — Mendelssohn, Rauch, Schlegel, Kant, — give a graceful and a classical touch ; then the little photo-graphs of the great masterpieces in the gallery, and laughable little German things — a raisin man, soap flowers, mazzipan animals, and gracefully decorating the corner, crowning all, the American flag ! How bright it is, how beautiful, inspiring ! Books, boxes, papers, cover the table in true scholarly confusion. This is shocking to the German precision, that can never understand "graceful carelessness." After all, is it not a charming little foreign study ?
When we say we eat five times a day, that may seem much, but it is many, not much. German law with regard to eating is, non multum sed multa. On our arrival here, we attempt to make each a full meal as at home, but that calls down amazement and frowns from the Germans, and discomfort for ourselves. Breakfast consists of coffee and rolls, generally two rolls. It is an unwritten law, and there are many such, stern as the decrees of the imperial court. To eat more than two rolls is to produce greater than an electric shock. One of our girls ate three one morning, whereupon she was informed that if she could not limit herself to the conventional number, she must go elsewhere, as the pension could not afford it. That was really not the reason, as the rolls cost only half a cent, but the breach of custom was more than even German patience could endure. The rolls are good, crisp and brown outside, soft, white, delicious inside ; but it grows langweilig, year in and year out. The loaf bread is not so good one longs for the home bread, white, smooth, delicate slices. Here it is dark, the loaf a half or three-quarters of a yard long; the people carry it from the baker's in their hands, minus all wrapping-paper, and at the table the large, uneven slices are cut when desired, or as each asks for it ; sometimes each takes up the loaf and cuts his own slice.
At eleven o'clock comes what is called zweite Frühstück, consisting of two slices of bread thick with butter, cold meat between them, and an apple. It is brought to one's own room, as is often the case with the first breakfast. At two is dinner. It is a little struggle to learn to eat this ; some things you never cari eat. For instance, how would you like apple soup, pear, plum, raisin, cherry soup ? Even the vegetable soups are unpalatable, too thick, of peas, carrots, potatoes ; but the bouillon or beef soups suit us better. Chocolate soup, with a delicate beaten egg or whipped cream, is good, but taken in a soup plate, with a large spoon, loses its delicacy. As a second course comes meat, very dry. The older in the sense of being here longer Americans say they have never found here good, fresh, juicy meat, and they explain this by the fact that the cattle cannot be killed until after much used, as the country cannot afford it ; that the cows are used to give milk, to plough, and draw the wain, and so are lean and poor, and the beef must be boiled to rags to be masticated at all. I read this statement in an English paper, which seems to confirm it : " The soil of Germany is impoverished. It gets plenty of labor on it, but it demands other dressing than the sweat of the brow. It never tastes lime, guano, or superphosphate. Even the burning of clay is too costly an experiment on loamy soil. In England, in a good year, the acre will yield thirty bushels of wheat, in Germany about four-teen — the richest and most favorable only twenty. Nothing tells the tale of how a land is farmed better than the roots. The richest soil in Germany renders roots no better than are raised on some of the poorest soil in England." Germany is so rich in learning and higher intellectual life that it is sad to think of the struggle for life among her people. The people themselves have little meat to eat, so we in the pension take what we can get ; probably, the poorness of the meat leads to this remarkable cooking of it, flavoring with vinegar, spices, to give a definite, pungent taste. Meat is always accompanied by two kinds of vegetables. Vegetables are limited — Irish potatoes (they have no sweet potatoes), carrots, turnips, pease, and many kinds of cabbage. A dessert of pudding or compote (a sort of preserves) — but only a very little bit. Once pie was made — à la Américaine. Pie, in general, is a curiosity to foreigners; this pie proved so, even to our educated pie taste.
At four is coffee and some sort of pastry. At eight is Abendbrod. Ah, ye feathery biscuits, delicate cake, browned chicken, fragrant fruit, happy visions of the past ! Here is rye-bread, cold meat, sausage, beer. Alas ! alas! amid all the learning and intellectual life of Germany, " we remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely," and long for the leeks and onions of the land behind us!
The day's work done, we meet in the salon in the evening — a tired crowd. Concerts and receptions allow us few evenings together, but these few we enjoy. On such evenings, one will read German aloud, while the others knit the ever-lasting gray stocking or the ubiquitous white lace. Often we sing, and most of all do we enjoy our national songs. The tune we call " America " is international, so we all sing our own words to it, in-our own language ; and our American hearts glow with gratitude that it is not "God save the Queen ! " or " Hail, Kaiser, to Thee! " but " Great God our King!" How great that is ! There is an amusing idea over here that our national song is " Yankee Doodle." Three of us, at a German party, were amazed at being invited to sing it. At first, we were indignant and refused. Suddenly, the ridiculousness of the affair struck us, and the one boarding there hastened to her room for her flag, and, waving it, we heartily sang, over and over again, " Yankee Doodle come to town," to the rapturous delight of the Germans. Imagine the scene !
Occasionally, we prepare dramas or charades, and that rare privilege — a gentleman's visit — is allowed. When one of us is invited out; we entertain the rest on our return with minute descriptions. Above all things, we long to get into the life among the German people themselves, to see their own customs, and study their own characters. Yet, coming as strangers into the land, it is a difficult matter to attain to such opportunity, especially when established in a pension. Americans usually live in pensions, and the genuine German life is almost as unknown to them as though they were on the other side of the waters. This pension-life did not meet my purpose in Germany, so I early consulted with one of the German pensioners about finding pension (board) in a German family. The Americans in pensions are favored by the resident Americans, and my first formal dinner was at the home of friends who, of American ancestry, have, nevertheless, always lived in Germany. As my first formal dinner on European soil, it was especially enjoyable.
The dinner was announced for seven o'clock. You must be strictly on time ; not a minute too early, not a second too late. The company was ushered into the drawing-room, and led at once into the Speise-saal. The place of each is indicated by a pretty card, with the name of the guest plainly to be seen. A delicate bunch of flowers is with the card. At each place, in the folds of the napkin, is a roll with seeds. The dinner was in courses : first, soup, the kind unknown to me, a small grain I had never seen before. Second, fish, with pastry. Third, roast-beef, with tiny potatoes ; also, pease and carrots, cooked together, —not our large carrots, but small, tender ones. Compote, a preserve of apples and currants. Fourth, Flamerie, like blanc-mange, with nuts in it. Last of all, bread and cheese. The wineglasses three at each place, red, green, and the tall, clear champagne-glass — made the table look very pretty. After dinner, we adjourned to the drawing-room, and soon appeared a man-servant, in livery, bringing coffee in tiny cups. Later, soda-water and beer were handed around, and at half-past ten we said good-night. The conversation was all in English, and we novices in the foreign life had a charming evening, enjoying the conversation of the experienced foreigners, and comparing our own impressions, experiences, blunders, and discoveries. In the most conspicuous part of the room hung a picture of Lincoln, —an American flag was thrown across one corner; and, in the land where the German flag is flying, the German tongue is spoken, where the German is no longer the emigrant, but where he makes you feel this is his home, the sight of this picture, the pleasure of such an evening, has not only a charm but an inspiration to the American student.